Teaching and Learning

11 Lesson Hacks: An Insider’s Guide to a Brilliant Lesson Observation

So you have a lesson observation on the horizon?

What do you do?

Cry? Stamp your feet? Feel nervous to the point of throwing up?

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We’ve all been there and guess what?

Even the most experienced teachers still ‘go there’ when they have a lesson observation looming.

It’s perfectly natural to feel that way.

But what if I told you there were easy and simple strategies that could make the outcome a better one?

What if there were some lesson hacks that could ensure your feedback is as rosy as your cheeks on a crisp, winter morning?

Lesson Observations

As a former Deputy Head, I know what your observer is looking for.

I also know that it doesn’t always go to plan.

The following are things I have observed:

  •  A child hug an Ofsted inspector and cling on to his legs.
  •  A lesson where, when asked if the children had any other questions about the activity, a child said to the teacher, ‘why do you have to confuse us all the time?’
  • A child throw up all over their work and another stuff a Dolly Mixture up their nostril.

Most importantly, I have seen brilliant teaching and I’ve seen crap teaching.

I know what works.

And I am going to tell you what works, right now.

11 Lesson Observation Hacks

It’s not going to be the obvious stuff, the ‘make sure you’ve planned to within an inch of your life’ kind of stuff.

It’s going to be the little things that add up to make one big thing, a cracking lesson observation.

Hack #1: Mini Plenary

When an observer walks into the room, many teachers stop the lesson instantly and attempt the good old mini-plenary.

Don’t!

Let the observer get a feel for the lesson for a few minutes. It is hard to gauge what’s going on when, as soon as you walk in, the lesson is stopped and children are asked to demonstrate progress.

However, once the observer has moved around the room for a few minutes, that’s the time to dive in with the mini plenary.

But what to do in a mini plenary?

  • Don’t get one child to read out their work. It is like pulling teeth and the rest of the children start picking scabs or making faces at their friends across the room.
  • Do ask a child what they have learned so far in the lesson (preferably one who will give an answer and not stare at you as if you’ve asked them to feed back in fluent Spanish).

This can be a quick progress signal and is an easy way for the observer to see that the child has actually learned something.

If you’re quick, you can also show a child’s work under the visualiser. Don’t read the whole thing out (yawn-fest), but do highlight one thing that they’ve done that shows evidence of the success criteria.

This example might help other children look at their work for evidence too.

  • Do keep it short. A mini plenary is just that: mini. One minute is good, two minutes at most. You don’t want to interrupt the learning for any longer, otherwise children could lose their ‘flow’.
  • Do make sure all children are paying attention. If you have a TA in the room, they can have the discrete job of focusing those children who need help to do so.

Hack #2: Signposting

This is linked to Hack #1 but is important enough to have its own official title.

Your observer may only be in the room for 20 minutes.

In that 20 minutes you have to show the learning that has taken place.

No learning; no progress.

The key here is to ‘signpost’ the learning.

In the mini-plenary I told you to ask a child what they’ve learnt so far in this lesson. This is a blatant signpost for the observer.

So is looking at a child’s work under the visualiser and saying, ‘So Fred wasn’t able to use fronted adverbials at the start of the lesson, but we can see here that he’s successfully using them in his writing now.’ It sounds staged and obvious, but it needs to be!

You want to show progress, don’t you?

Hack #3: Pace

Get that lesson moving! Your children should be on the carpet/listening to input for no longer than 10 minutes.

Any longer and you’ll hear the telltale sign that you’ve lost them: Velcro.

As soon as shoes begin to be played with or low level disruption starts taking place, you need to move on.

The children don’t mean to, but they give you really honest feedback. If they’re bored, you’re going to know about it, and so is the observer.

Time cues are really useful for children. When you send them off to do their independent activity, tell them how long they’ve got until you’re going to check in (i.e. the mini plenary).

Once you’ve done that, tell them how long they’ve got until the activity is finished. Keep the pace up all the time and the children will begin to respond.

Hack #4: Avoiding Disaster

How many times have I seen a lesson that is clearly going up a certain creek without a paddle, but the teacher still continues on regardless?

Answer? Too many times.

If the lesson is tanking, STOP!

If you’ve planned a lesson on multiplying two-digit by two-digit numbers, but they aren’t grasping it, STOP!

You’ll know the lesson I mean. The one where most of them have their hands up, a look of utter confusion on their faces and the rest are becoming disruptive or staring out of the window.

If this is happening during an observation (or in any lesson BTW), STOP, STOP, STOP!

An observer will want to see you handling this type of problem because it happens so often – planning is only what you hope will happen in a lesson, not what you can guarantee will happen in a lesson.

If the class isn’t grasping a particular concept, bring them all back together and take it back a step.

I normally say something like, ‘I’m so sorry, I think I planned something that was a little too tricky for you. Let’s take it back a stage/do some more together.’

This might mean doing more examples together or it might mean revising two digit by one digit multiplication, as is the case in this example.

If there are children who do get it though, don’t bring them back to the carpet. Let them get on with it independently.

Hack #5: Dressing Up

I have seen lessons with people dressed up as a variety of characters: a WW2 evacuee, an inventor etc. I’ve seen my headteacher conduct a meeting dressed as Cruella de Ville. Heck, I’ve even dressed up as a chef myself.

But is it necessary? Is it going to ensure progress?

No. It’s a gimmick.

Sorry that sounds harsh, but it’s true.

Yes, it might entertain the children for the first few minutes, but that’s all.

An observer only cares about the teaching and learning that is taking place in that classroom during that lesson observation.

They don’t care if you’re dressed up as Where’s Wally or The Gruffalo (unless it’s World Book Day, of course!), if the children don’t make progress, dressing up isn’t going to help you one tiny bit.

My advice for Hack #5 is this.

KISS

Keep It Simple, Stupid (had you worried there didn’t I!)

Do what you do on a normal day and do it well, especially in your NQT year.

The more elaborate the lesson plan, the more chances there are for things to go wrong. You’re not going to be teaching at your best if you are trying to stop your wig from falling off or stop your Professor Dumbledore glasses from dropping off the end of your nose.

Focus on this: what is it that the children need to learn and how can I deliver it to ensure progress?

Leave the Dalmatian outfit for another day; we won’t judge what you do on the weekend.

Hack #6: Questioning

Two types of questions should be in your lesson: the open-ended and the closed.

You learned that at uni right?

But how easy is it to think of open-ended questions on the spot?

It’s not.

Now, when you’ve been teaching for a longer period of time, you’ll be able to refine your questioning skills and you’ll get better at open-ended questions

But as an NQT, plan them.

You might not ask all of them and you might think of better ones as the lesson goes on, but plan them anyway.

Planning should be full of questions. Think of them as you plan, almost as though you’re teaching the lesson in your head as you get your ideas on paper.

You can’t teach with your plan on your lap, but you can put a couple of discrete post-it notes on your desk, with a few key questions on them. No one will judge you for that.

I’ve done it and it gave me a sense of reassurance when I had an Ofsted inspector in the room.

Hack #7: Don’t get caught up in the drama

There aren’t many teachers who love a lesson observation.

But there are lots of teachers who like to freak out about them…and quite loudly too.

They’re in the staff room with their head in their hands, voicing how terrible their observation was.

They’re flapping at the photocopier in the morning because it’s flashing ‘paper jam’ for the 3rd time that hour, and they need some resources for their observation lesson.

My advice?

Don’t get drawn in. Don’t get involved.

If they’re experienced teachers, they should know better than to freak you out about it.

But some people just love the drama.

Don’t be one of them. It’ll only make the observation experience so much worse.

See it as a learning opportunity; you’re a life-long learner after all. Don’t expect it to be perfect; it never is.

Show them what you can do well and accept the areas that need to be developed.

You’ll always be refining and improving your skills.

Your lesson isn’t going to be perfect. If you know that before you begin, you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache during feedback.

Hack #8: Organisation

Remember the teacher at the photocopier, waiting for resources and frustrated with the paper jam?

It can happen to anyone when trying to get lessons ready for the day ahead.

But not on an observation day.

You’re better than that. Have your resources and lesson prepped the night before. Your classroom needs to be set up and ready, if that’s possible.

This will calm your nerves as there is nothing worse than rushing around trying to prepare things at the last minute.

One thing that can turn a lesson from success to disaster is resources.

Don’t have children wandering around the classroom in search of a pencil or a pair of scissors during the lesson. It takes them away from their learning and is frankly poor organisation on your part.

If they need scissors, there should be enough pairs in the middle of the table for them to access them without their bums needing to leave their seats. All pencils should be sharpened, all books in their right places.

It makes a good impression and ensures children can get to work with the minimum amount of fuss.

Don’t have children handing out supplies – by the time they’ve finished, at least 5 minutes of learning time has been wasted whilst Lisa decided which colour pen she would like to have.

If you are using mini whiteboards, get them out before the lesson starts/the observer comes in.

There is nothing worse than disorganised input time with children faffing about trying to get a pen that works and a wiper that hasn’t been used on a runny nose.

An observer doesn’t need to see ‘faff’.

The more organised you are, the more calm you will feel.

A calm, organised teacher is a happy teacher.

A happy teacher delivers great lessons.

Hack #9: You’re in Control

A great piece of advice I received when I was a Deputy and facing an Ofsted interview was this.

You’re in control.

I certainly didn’t feel like it at the time, but it was true.

You are in the same position too.

With an observer in your room, there are a few things that you can do to help the lesson go in your favour:

  • Don’t leave an empty chair next to a child who would find it difficult to answer an observer’s questions. It won’t guarantee that they won’t get asked, but it makes it less of an obvious choice of seat.
  • Ask open-ended questions to children who will confidently speak. Ask closed questions to other children, but differentiate that questioning accordingly. If they don’t know the answer, who could help them out?
  • If you see an observer standing next to a child/group for a long period of time, get over there and check what’s going on. It might be that the child has got completely confused and needs some teacher support.
  • Don’t be afraid to support a group that an observer is looking at – you might feel like you should stay away if they are there, but don’t! Focus on the children, not the observer
  • Between you and the TA, decide who is doing focused group work and who is ‘floating.’ If you’re both doing focused work, you’ll need to get up from time to time and check the rest of the groups.
  • Manage any behaviour issues quickly and efficiently, in the way that you normally would. Don’t be afraid to pause the learning for a short while to sort out low-level disruption. Observers are looking at how you deal with this type of behaviour. Don’t get flustered, just manage it and move on. If it is persistent, you’ll need to set the rest of the class off with their work and take the child aside.
  • Prep the children with what to say if an observer asks them a question (see Hack #10). They will give better answers if an adult talking to them does not fluster them.

Hack #10: Know the Questions

Observers normally ask the same sort of questions to a group of children or to a child individually.

Here are some of the more common ones:

  • What are you learning about today?
  • How long have you got to complete the activity?
  • Why are you learning about this?
  • What should you do if you get stuck?
  • What have you learned so far today?
  • How do you know if you’ve been successful/achieved the objective?

A mixture of open and closed questioning as you can see.

My advice would be to prep the children, e.g. if Mrs X asks you what you’re learning today, look at your learning objective to help you. If Mr Y asks you if you’ve been successful, find evidence of the success criteria.

This isn’t cheating, it’s being prepared. The more prepared you and the children are, the better things will be.

A word of warning though! Don’t practise the whole lesson beforehand. It is tempting, but the children will somehow let it slip that this is the same thing as they did yesterday.

Practise some of the strategies, but not the entire lesson.

Hack #11: Treat Every Day as a Lesson Observation

Children are the worst for ratting teachers out.

If you change things just for an observation, they’ll drop you in it by saying something like, ‘we don’t usually do this’ or ‘she doesn’t normally make us sit here.’

I have been told some right corkers in my time.

You want to be a consistently good teacher, right?

And no, I am not meaning ‘Ofsted good’ as that doesn’t exist any more for teachers.

But I mean a teacher that you feel proud of; a teacher that the children adore and that makes sure every child is making progress in their classroom?

Good.

By doing these hacks every day, lesson observations will be a breeze.

Because the secret is this.

These hacks are just good teaching.

They’re not miracles or things that are going to move the Earth. They are simple techniques that you can use every day to make your lessons successful.

And the great thing?

The more you practise them, the easier they become and any observation will simply feel like ‘just another lesson.’

Okay, maybe not quite, but you’ll be well on your way!

Good luck!

How many of these hacks have you used successfully? Have you got any others that our readers might like to try?

Post your answer in the comment box below.

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